Expect a tight race in NL East

Expect a fierce battle to the wire in NL East

The National League East hasn't had many tight races in recent years. Over the last five seasons, the division champs have won by an average spread of 10 1/2 games, with only one race decided by single digits. This has been the wake-me-when-it's-October division.

It figures to be different this season, so you may want to take a deep breath around Labor Day. Despite having blown out the division last year, the defending-champion Mets have so many panic-button issues on their pitching staff that some Phillies already think the race is theirs to lose. But both will have to watch out for the Braves, who, with a few good breaks, will bring back their pitching heyday.

Meanwhile, the Marlins will continue to build on their precocious rotation, and the Nationals will benefit from the stability of having new ownership in place, with both teams under the direction of energetic new managers.

The favorite

Perhaps encouraged by how their makeshift rotation carried them deep into October, the Mets took only some low-profile measures to compensate for Pedro Martinez's expected half-season absence. It's a big load to lay on the offense -- especially with uncertain production from new corner outfielders Moises Alou and Shawn Green.

Projected regular-season finish: NL East champions

Biggest ST challenge: Find enough innings for the nearly dozen candidates to join Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez in the season-opening rotation.

Best position battle: Right field. Credentials aside, Green may not be able to keep Endy Chavez out of a lineup that needs his speed, or out of an outfield that needs his defense.

Wild card: If general manager Omar Minaya guessed wrong on the available starters' ability to stay the course, the Mets may already be off course by the time Pedro gets back in gear. But if Martinez does return with the health and stamina to go six innings every five days, they should have a better finishing kick than last season.

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The challenger

By the time they ended their furious September surge -- too little because they'd begun it too far back -- the Phillies had convinced themselves of being the best team in the East. GM Pat Gillick brought in a proven big-game pitcher (Freddy Garcia) and a project (Adam Eaton). "I think, finally, we are the team to beat," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, dropping the gauntlet.

Projected regular-season finish: Second place

Biggest ST challenge: Convince Pat Burrell that he's still a very big part of this team. He's the big stick in an outfield with Aaron Rowand and Shane Victorino, and the best hope to protect Ryan Howard in the lineup.

Best position battles: Rotation. Is Eaton (13 starts due to a finger tendon injury) convincing enough to provoke the trade of Jon Lieber? Setup relief. Gillick's willingness to swap Rowand to San Diego for Scott Linebrink betrays his discomfort with in-house candidates Ryan Madson, Antonio Alfonseca and Geoff Geary.

Wild card: While the Mets scramble for a season-opening rotation, the Phils have six proven starters who, by pitching up to their credentials, can shorten the race. But they'll need to eat a lion's share of the innings and can't count on much help from the bullpen.

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The long shots

Unlike other perennial forces who are only comfortable reloading with veterans through free agency and trades, the Braves have never been afraid to tie their fortunes to prospects. That was evident two years ago, when 17 assorted rookies helped them to their 14th straight division title. And so they roll the dice again with a green right side of the infield.

Projected regular-season finish: Third place

Biggest ST challenge: Gain confidence in a couple of left elbows that can make-or-break the season. Mike Hampton missed all of 2006 following reconstructive surgery, and new setup man Mike Gonzalez sat out the last five weeks with tendinitis in the joint.

Best position battles: GM John Schuerholz and skipper Bobby Cox are committed to planting former outfielders Scott Thorman and Kelly Johnson at first and second, respectively. But there will be enough veteran options in camp (headlined by Craig Wilson and Chris Woodward) to shorten the rope.

Wild card: Tim Hudson spent the offseason rediscovering his desire. If he now rediscovers the stuff and attitude that made him virtually unbeatable in Oakland (183 starts, 39 losses), he joins forces with John Smoltz and Hampton for a formidable trio. Cox could make up the other two days as he goes along, all the way to a return to October.

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Entering the 2006 season as the greenest team in modern MLB history, the Fish found themselves in late May, found themselves in a race in mid-September, and now the rest of the division could find itself up to its gills in trouble. Pick your migraine: That Florida had the league's only rotation with five double-figure winners -- or that four of them were rookies, an MLB first.

Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place

Biggest ST challenge: New manager Fredi Gonzalez, who essentially lost out on this job a year ago to Joe Girardi, and new pitching coach Rick Kranitz have to earn the trust of the young team.

Best position battle: Center field. Versatile Alfredo Amezaga is penciled in, but Alex Sanchez, Reggie Abercrombie, Eric Reed and Cody Ross will all crowd him.

Wild card: If new closer Taylor Tankersley proves as sharp at the end of games as he was in the middle of them (2.85 ERA in 49 appearances), the staff may not have a ceiling. If offseason arm problems for Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez linger into the season, the team may not have a prayer.

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Maybe next year

A new ballpark isn't the only baseball work in progress in the capital. A team that didn't replace some important pieces who left may seemed to have regressed, but the Nats are now following the long-range vision of club president Stan Kasten. In his first four years at the Braves' helm, they averaged 98 losses, then won 14 straight division titles. It's called laying a solid foundation. Perhaps the title above should read, "Maybe all next decade."

Projected regular-season finish: Last place

Biggest ST challenge: The Opening Acta. Unleash the energetic optimism of Manny Acta, the youngest manager in the game, and let it inspire a blend of young, castaway and recycled players who will check in expecting to lose. If they buy into the program, Acta II should be a crowd-pleaser.

Best position battles: Larry Broadway and well-traveled non-roster invitee Travis Lee will fight to keep Nick Johnson's first-base spot warm. Kory Casto comes out of Double-A to compete in left field with vet Alex Escobar.

Wild card: Neither Johnson (broken right leg) nor Cristian Guzman (torn labrum) will be ready out of the gate; by the time they step in to fill two holes, the Nationals could already be buried in a deep one.

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You read it here first ...

1) Fewer young Marlins exchanged arbitration figures (3 -- Miguel Olivo, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle Willis) during the offseason than wedding vows (4 -- Johnson, Dan Uggla, Mike Jacobs, Willis)

2) Burrell, responding to a challenge, will make foes pay for pitching around Ryan Howard with a 40-homer, 120-RBI season.

3) Hampton will resurface in Atlanta as the first dual winner of the Comeback Player of the Year and Cy Young awards.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.